By Ina Mutyat
When we think about animals on a farm, most of our minds go to thoughts of cows, pigs, and chickens. However, one animal that can be overlooked is sheep. Although they can be a little ditzy, like running headfirst into the side of a barn, sheep are a great resource for things such as meat, fiber, milk, and many others. Sheep have been popular on the American farm since 1609 when they were first brought by the early settlers of Jamestown, Virginia. During the 1940s and 50s they peaked in their popularity among farmers where they reached approximately 55 million. In 2016, my family started raising sheep and over the last five years we have realized just how much work, but also reward, sheep can bring. It can be messy work, but it has definitely been an interesting adventure!
There are many joys when it comes to raising your own animals and sheep are no different. Sheep are most known to produce meat, wool, and milk. In terms of a meat source, each lamb can provide roughly forty to fifty pounds of meat when properly fed. Lamb meat can actually contain more iron and zinc than other meats, and when compared to beef, is the healthier choice. There are two main types of sheep meat; Lamb, which is meat from a sheep less than a year old, and Mutton, which is from sheep over a year old. Most sheep need shearing, so they do not overheat in hotter months or get any type of parasitic infestation—I know, yuck. Shearing is the process of removing the wool with shears and is basically a really messy hair cut that does not hurt them if done properly. The wool can then be cleaned and processed to make yarn. Also sheep can be milked, that is, if you can catch and hold them long enough! Their milk has almost twice the butterfat of cow’s milk with higher percentages of vitamin A, B, and E.
Another joy that can come from owning sheep is more personal for the farmer in that baby lambs are just adorable! When a ewe, a female sheep, is about to give birth, she tends to seclude herself from the pack and may even stop eating for a while. In most cases, sheep do not need any help giving birth, which is good and bad for sheep farmers. Good because you do not need to help your ewe give birth in the middle of the night, but also bad because sometimes you will look out at your field and see baby lambs hoping along with little idea of how old they are. This is where the adorable comes in, when the lambs get to be about a week old, they like to bounce, literally hop like bunnies around the field. It is very entertaining! Ewes most commonly have 2-3 babies at a time. However, for many sheep who give birth to more than one lamb, it is not uncommon for the mother sheep to ignore one or more of the babies. If you can catch this happening fast enough, you can bottle feed and get a perfectly healthy lamb. This offers even more adorableness because they may be a little more friendly than the others and love to cuddle.
With many things in life, the joys cannot come without pain. When raising sheep you get the same problems as with any animal—predators, parasites, freak accidents, and the risk of them escaping. As a sheep raiser myself, I have had all these things happen. Dogs and coyotes are our main predator threat, but we have even had hawks try to take the newer babies. Parasites and worms are a big deal too, and many times you can see when a sheep may have a problem. As with a barber pole worm infection, a bubble of fluid will form on the underside of the sheep’s jaw (known as bottle jaw) and if you can treat the infection in time your sheep will be fine. Freak accidents, though they are rare, can happen, such as this one time we had a perfectly healthy sheep choke on some feed! Another pain with sheep is that they like to go where they are not supposed to go, so you must have fencing. After the first few times of looking out your window and seeing a sheep staring at you, you invest in good fencing.
God has truly blessed us for the last five years, by giving us the opportunities and resources to raise our own food. Although they are not the most common animal to raise, sheep are very interesting creatures, and you can really see why God compares us to them throughout the Bible. By going through the journey of sheep farming you realize how much they need a shepherd, which in turn shows how much we need the Lord as our shepherd. “Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalms 100:3)